Book Review: Loonshots

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Here’s what Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, And Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall is about in the author’s own words.

“I’ve always appreciated authors who explain their points simply, right up front. So, here’s the argument in brief:

1. The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.

2. Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries.

3. Applying the science of phase transitions to the behavior of teams, companies, or any group with a mission provides practical rules for nurturing loonshots faster and better.”

There’s a lot to like in this book, but there are also things that may inspire you to pluck something else from the bookshelf. Bahcall structured his book as three parts plus an appendix.

Part one is five stories that illustrate what it takes to nurture loonshots. The first story is about Vannevar Bush and Thomas Vail. The second is about researcher Akira Endo. In the third story, you learn how Juan Trippe and Bob Crandall each ran their airline. “The Moses Trap” is the fourth story, illustrated with the life and work of Edwin Land. Bahcall calls the fifth story “Escaping the Moses Trap,” and it’s about Steve Jobs. It’s also about Ed Catmull.

Catmull is the CEO of Pixar. His experience and practice are like a red thread running through this book. If you already know a lot about Catmull, great. If you don’t, buy a copy of his book, Creativity Inc., and read it before you read Loonshots. You’ll also get another full-scale version of a loonshot-nurturing story.

In part two, Bahcall intends to present the “science” of loonshots. He does, and he doesn’t. His use of the phase transition metaphor is excellent. He presents it clearly. The rules he derives make sense.

But there’s also some voodoo in this section. Bahcall presents some of his concepts as if they were mathematical equations. We see various factors increase and decrease in numerators and denominators. But there are no actual values, there are only concepts, and concepts don’t work in equations. You need real numbers to make real equations work.

Bahcall called part three, “The Mother of All Loonshots.” The stories here, like the rest of the book, are well-told. This part of the book was interesting, fascinating even, but not particularly helpful.

An afterword that attempts to parse the distinction between disruption and loonshots. Disruption is such an over- and misused, word today that you can get some value from the discussion.

There are also two appendices. One is a summary of the book. The summary is excellent, and you can use it to make sense of some things you may find in the main text.

The other appendix is about the equations. It does a better job of explaining what Bahcall means than the main body of the text.

Things That Bugged Me

These things bug me. They may not bug you, but if you’re irritated by some of the same things I am, it may influence whether you want to buy the book.

Bahcall tells us that ARPA, later DARPA, is a great organization. According to Bahcall, “Its alumni have led, or its management principles have inspired, many of the legendary research organizations across the United States, including nearly every example mentioned in this book.”

That’s great. But when Bahcall talks about great organizations, later in the book he doesn’t mention DARPA.

Bahcall says we want to find ways to make larger organizations capable of nurturing loonshots. He even gives us ways to do it.

But organizations such as Pixar, W. L. Gore and Associates, and DARPA, are getting along without increasing the size of the work groups. They adapt their corporate structure to allow lots of smaller groups.  I wish he discussed whether that is what he means by making large organizations capable of nurturing loonshots.

Last on the “bug me” list is the way he uses language in some places. For example, he refers to Gore Associates. The name of the company is W. L. Gore and Associates. In several places, he refers to “management span.” I’ve never heard that term. When I Googled it to see if that was my problem or his, the articles I found referred me to “span of control.” That’s the phrase that I’ve used for half a century.

In A Nutshell

Loonshots is an excellent book that makes important points and tells relevant stories well. Here are some reasons to read it.

Bahcall tells business stories you don’t normally hear and tells them well.

The insight that we often write things off to “culture” that we could deal with more effectively by considering structure and incentives is powerful. The phase transition metaphor really works.

There is a marvelous and helpful discussion of using a “system mindset” to examine your decision process and not just the outcome of your decision in an after-action critique.

Read Creativity Inc. before you read Loonshots. It is a full-scale example of Bahcall’s key points. It will also help you understand references to Ed Catmull in Loonshots.

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